Sunday, October 14, 2007

We Are All Dexter

Now that I’ve had a chance to sample quite a bit of the Fall Season, I have to admit it’s a better than average crop. Crime dramas particularly are breaking away from procedural formula, if only in baby steps. NBC’s Life, ABC’s Pushing Daisies and even CBS’s Moonlight put new wrinkles in the tried and true face of the detective show. Of course, cable paved the way for the new wave of cops, with programs like Monk and The Shield.

As good as these series are, none of them compare with Showtime’s Dexter in terms of chutzpah and originality. The notion of a serial killer who only targets murderers beyond the reach of the law was something unheard of in broadcast television. The fact that he works as a blood splatter expert in the Miami Dade Police Department’s Forensics Division made it all the more enticing. That it was injected with dark humor and compelling characterizations made it irresistible in its first season.

Season Two had a lot of weight to carry if it was to have any chance of not falling into a sophomore rut. In my review of the new season’s first episode, I wasn’t totally convinced the second season was going to be able to maintain the audacity of the first season. Dexter (Michael C. Hall), still in a fugue over having to put his brother down in order to save his adopted sister, looked as if he had lost his mojo. He spared one target and let another one escape. On top of that, his underwater burial ground was discovered. Things didn’t look good for Dexter.

My fears were groundless.

Advance screeners of the first four episodes prove that, if anything, Dexter is even better this go round. Motivations that were only hinted at in the first season are exploited to more fully realized plot devices that carry us more into the universe of Dexter himself, but the worlds of those who surround him. His girlfriend Rita (Julie Benz) has evolved from her battered past to emerge as a confident woman who’s resolved to control her life. His sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) is struggling with her own demons, wrestling with her ordeal with the Ice Truck Killer while maintaining her day to day duties on the police force. Doakes (Erik King) has his own agendas as he tails Dexter relentlessly, even as he conceals his own dark past. Lt. Guerta (Lauren Velez) continues to work both sides of the political fence to her own ambitions. Angel Batista (David Zayas) butchers Zen philosophy and Masuka (C. S. Lee) takes misogyny to new levels. Batista and Masuka, played for laughs, may prove to be Dexter’s greatest threat as he weaves through the machinations of bureaucracy and relationships to quell the thirst of his “dark passenger.” His Dark Passenger, of course, is the need that forces him to kill. All Rita knows is he has an addiction (thinking it’s drugs) and forces him to enroll in a treatment program.

Two new characters, Agent Lundy (Keith Carradine) and Lila (Jaime Murray), are poised to complicate Dexter’s life even more. Agent Lundy is the FBI’s top manhunter, sent to Miami after Dexter’s underwater dumping ground was discovered, to ferret out the identity of the killer, dubbed by the press as the “Bay Harbor Butcher.” Lila is Dexter’s NA sponsor, and appears to be in some ways as dark, if not darker, than Dexter himself.
As complicated as all this is, none of it deters Dexter from issuing his own personal brand of justice, as per Harry’s Code. Dexter has matured, but he hasn’t mellowed. He trades in his Taurus for a minivan for purely practical reasons—his relationship with Rita and the kids has grown deeper and he’s thinking in terms of family. Of course, the abundant cargo space and tinted rear side windows also serve his other purposes well.

Unlike last season, Season Two delves into the repercussions of the past. We see Dexter’s prey had families, too, and can’t help but see them as victims in their own right, if only for a moment. His targets were murderers to be sure, and were hardly sympathetic. Still, their disappearances, more than their deaths, caused pain to those they left behind. Since we see all this from Dexter’s point of view, we feel a momentary twinge of guilt.

It doesn’t last long at all.

A huge part of the genius of Dexter is that it forces us to look at ourselves. Intellectually we know that one does not dismember people and dump them in the ocean, regardless of their crimes. Emotionally, however, we see murderers go unpunished, sometimes even thrive after the fact. While very few of us would go to the extremes that Dexter employs, even fewer of us can deny the catharsis we feel when Dexter does his dastardly deeds. It’s escapism at its very best.

Bottom line, we’re all Dexter.